• US religious right losing sway: picking simplistic causal reasons

    The Daily Beast recently reported the following:

    According to a Pew Research Report released earlier this year, the percentage of the U.S. population that identifies as Christian has dropped from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. Evangelical, Catholic, and mainline Protestant affiliations have all declined.

    Meanwhile, 30 percent of Americans ages 18-29 list “none” as their religious affiliation (the figure for all ages is about 23 percent). Nearly 40 percent of Americans who have married since 2010 report that they are in “religiously mixed” marriages, which means that many individuals who profess Christianity are in families where not everyone does.

    These changes are taking place for a constellation of reasons: greater secular education (college degrees), multiculturalism, shifting social mores, the secular space of consumer capitalism and celebrity culture, the sexual revolution (including feminism and LGBT equality), legal and constitutional changes (like the banning of prayer in public school, and the finding of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage), the breakdown of the nuclear family, the decline of certain forms of family and group identification, and the association of religion in general with nonsensical and outdated dogmas. The Pew report noted Americans are also changing religions more than in the past, and when they do so, they are more likely to move away from Christianity than toward it.

    The idea is that the causal respionsibility for the loss of religious fervour in the States is complex, multi-faceted, and takes a lot of thought and analysis. Steven Reiss, in the Huffington Post, talks about these from a psychologial perspective:

    1. Organized religion versus spirituality

    2. Tribalism versus humanitarianism

    3. Traditional versus nontraditional families

    4. Trust versus loss of confidence in institutions

    To which he conlcudes:

    I believe these four factors have played a role in making organized religion less adept at meeting people’s basic desires. That doesn’t mean this will always be so. Religion may change and adapt — as it has before — to better meet our basic human needs.

    Whether it will remains an open question.

    There are many theories, and many levels of variables and, as mentioned, complexities.

    How do such complexities play themselves out? Well, as Jay Michaelson claims in the Daily Beast article:

    But no one likes a “constellation of reasons” to explain why the world they grew up in, and the values they cherish, seem to be slipping away. Enter the scapegoat: the war on religion, and the persecution of Christianity.

    It’s much easier to explain changes by referring to a single, malevolent cause than by having to understand a dozen complex demographic trends. Plus, if Christianity is declining because it’s being attacked, then that decline could be reversed if the attack were successfully repelled. Unlike what is actually happening—a slow, seemingly irrevocable decline in American Christianity—the right’s argument that “religious liberty” is under assault mixes truth and fantasy to provide a simpler, and more palatable, explanation for believers.

    Take, as an example, Christmas. The weird idea that there is a “War on Christmas” orchestrated by liberal elites—Starbucks cups in hand—is, on its face, ridiculous, even if it is widely held on the right. Shop clerks saying “Happy Holidays” aren’t causing the de-Christianization of Christmas—they’re effects of it. Roughly half of Americans celebrate Christmas as a cultural, not a religious, holiday: Santa Claus and Christmas trees, not baby Jesus in a manger. So that’s what businesses celebrate. It’s capitalism, not conspiracy.

    Unfortunately, even if the war on religion is fictive, the “defense” against it is very real and very harmful. This year alone, 17 states introduced legislation to protect “religious freedom” by exempting not just churches and religious organizations (including bogus ones set up to evade the law) from civil rights laws, domestic violence laws, even the Hippocratic Oath, but also but private individuals and for-profit businesses. Already, we’ve seen pediatricians turn children away because their parents are gay, and wife-abusers argue that it’s their religious duty to beat their spouses, and most notoriously that multimillion-dollar corporations like Hobby Lobby can have religious beliefs that permit them to refuse to provide health insurance to their employees on that basis.

    I think this is a really pertninent point. Humans love certainty – we know this from psychological reseaerch. Multiple variables means we have this uneasy psychological state of affairs in our brains in being unable to simplistically aportioin blame. We love to assign blame. In fact, this is something I looked at in “Have I killed someone?” which I will quote from now.

    Causality. It is a funny thing. Or not so funny.

    A few years back, I took my class, as a teacher, on a class trip to the Historic Dockyard in the naval city of Portsmouth, UK. My school is some 45 minutes walk and a short ferry ride from there. With the cost of coaches, it is important to be able to walk to such places to keep the costs down for parents.

    We pasted it there on the way, and we were running a little behind, so the walk back at the end of the day was quicker still. One of our parents, helping with the trip, was a heavy smoker who had to stop off at strategic times throughout the day for a crafty kids-can’t-see-me smoke. Many of the children were moaning on the way back because they simply were not used to walking any such length of time. This certainly applied to some of the parent helpers too.

    Anyway, we made it back for the end of the school day, so good effort.

    Except, that night, we heard that the aforementioned parent helper had died. He had had a heart attack.

    Ever since that moment, I have felt partly responsible for that outcome, of that man’s death. In a naive, folk understanding sort of way, that is.

    In writing my book on free will, and in researching the Kalam Cosmological Argument, I have come to understand that causality is much more complex than one might imagine. A does not cause B which causes C in such a simplistic manner. At best, things are only ever contributory causes (see JL Mackie’s INUS notion of causality [1]); but even then, this assumes one can quantise time, and arbitrarily assign discrete units of existence to both events and entities.

    Let’s look at the event of the class trip. Did it start when we arrived at the dockyard, when we got off the ferry, when we left, when I started organising it, or, indeed, were elements of the trip in place when I started planning the unit, given the job, got my teacher’s qualifications etc?

    Of course, there is no objective answer to that. These abstract labels are subjectively assigned such that we can all disagree on them. That is, simplistically speaking, an element of conceptual nominalism. Likewise, there were necessary conditions in the parent’s life which contributed to his death: anything from his smoking, to his lack of general health, from deciding to come on the school trip, to  deciding to get married and have kids. And so on.

    An event happens in time and arbitrarily ascribing a beginning and an end to that event is an abstract pastime, and thus fails to be (imho) objectively and (Platonically) real.

    Too simple! (wikimedia image)

    Causality works through people, and harnessing it so that any one individual can claim themselves (morally) responsible for future effects which themselves are caused by effects preceding the individual makes for tricky philosophy. This is the battleground for the free will debate, for sure. Arbitrarily cutting causality up in such a way is problematic.

    As I have set out in my analyses of the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA), which I hope to turn into a book (based on a university thesis I did on it), causality is not a linear affair which can be sliced and diced, It is a unitary matrix which derives from either a single beginning (like the Big Bang), something I find problematic, or eternally backward, or reaching some time commencement which could itself be a reboot. Either way, the idea of causality cannot be seen, and should not therefore be seen, in a discrete manner of units which can be attributed to equally problematic notions of events or unities. We are one big family of causality, this here universe.

    So, in answer to the question, no. No, I didn’t kill anyone. Perhaps we could say that the universe did. And whatever notion “I” am, and whatever “I” am represented by, sat on or, better still, was part of the threads which cross and recross intricately and almost infinitely over each other in a mazy web of interconnected causality.

    Why mention all of this? Well, this idea of simplistic causal understanding is what underwrites the points from the DB article such that Christians are claiming persecution and martyrdom from the secular political machine in the sense that “atheists atre evil”.

    If you ever get the chance to watch “Bitter Lake” by superb documentary maker Adam Curtis, then do so. Here is the first part:


    Bitter Lake is an adventurous and epic film that explains why the big stories that politicians tell us have become so simplified that we can’t really see the world any longer. It argues that Western politicians have manufactured a simplified story about militant Islam into a “good” vs. “evil” argument, informed by and a reaction to Western society’s increasing chaos and disorder, which they neither grasp nor understand.

    This fits in perfectly with the narrative which supposedly persecuted Christians perpetuate. Their narrative is not true and is dangerous, prompting kneejerk and reactionary lawmaking from right-wing blowhards. Causality is far more complex, and it’s about time that those very same Christians tried to get to grips witht he myriad variables that represent the changing seas of religio-political reality.

    Category: AtheismFeaturedPoliticsReligion and Society


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce